House of Wax

Every fall, approximately 6 weeks leading up to Halloween, I load our Netflix cue with a collection of Horror/Suspense Thrillers we haven’t seen. It’s amazing that every year, I can create a list of new titles, and we’ve been doing this for 4 years or so now. We get everything from Classics to B’s. I always try to get the original rather than the remake, because those are often not nearly as good. One of the films this year is House of Wax, the 1953 film starring Vincent Price as an insane wax artist whose sculptures are – literally – a little too real. This is a remake of a 1933 film, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which is almost the same story with some changes in characters, though not in the premise. In either version, the sculptor regards his figures as his children and feels a connection to them.

So what does this have to do with anything? I can’t find a picture easily, but in the 1953 version, one of the figures outside the museum to attract visitors is dancing. Wiggling her wax hips from side to side in an imitation belly dance. 1953 pre-dates Disneyland by 2 years and Audio-Animatronics by about 10, but this clearly serves as an early experiment with the possibility of making inanimate figures move.

Automatons are nothing new. Descartes, the famous annoying Enlightenment philosopher, used to play with them in between his other scholarly pursuits. Stories of golems are almost ancient lore. Frankenstein’s Monster, Pinocchio, Metropolis’s robot. Humans have been long obsessed with making the inanimate move. In a way, I guess this is our god complex at it’s best – though, the myths remind us, since we are not the creator gods, our creations are imperfect and fall short of true living things.

Disney was no stranger to this. Initially, he brought to life pictures, making them move. His chosen medium was animation, so he was bringing to life the images of his psyche (and the psyches of his animators). In the 1940s and 1950s, he started removing himself further away from the production of animations and started playing with toys – specifically miniatures and trains – that would plant the seeds of inspiration for Disneyland. By the time of planning the 1964 World’s Fair, he was so fascinated with the idea of automatons, that he pushed the imagineers to come up with realistic robots, or the Audio-Animatronics. Granted, when you sail through it’s a small world, the roboticness of the dolls is apparent, complete with clicking eyelids, but in The Haunted Mansion, they resemble real grim-grinning ghosties. Audio-animatronics makes sense when bringing to life the stuff of our dreams.

But wait, you might ask, isn’t Disneyland one man’s dreams and aren’t we expected to play along with his scheme? Yes, but as my very wonderful dissertation partner-in-crime points out in her blog, they can’t really control the patron’s reaction, though they do try really really hard and hope that all patrons have the same experience. I think Disneyland has inspired more dreams than any other element in my life. I have had them for years, even before ever visiting Disneyland. At least for me, Disneyland does bring to life the stuff of my dreams. For me, it is fully archetypal imagery that communicated to me from beyond the berm. So this is why I’m writing a dissertation about it. May as well spend the cornerstone of my academic career writing about something personally relevant. I didn’t go to Pacifica to write about someone else’s dreams, after all.

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